Trigger warning: I am going to proceed to tell you that your problems can eventually bother you less. I am going to violate every norm and claim that no matter how deep the trauma you have undergone, it can be overcome. I'm not supposed to say this, but there is no healer. YOU are the healer. You can alter your reflex physiological responses to your emotions. You can rebuild the narrative around anything that has ever happened to you, good, bad, or neutral. Obstacle immunity can be developed.
None of this is to undercut the seriousness of what may have been a long series of devastating life events. My people tend to have three to five times more traumatic events in their timeline than the average person. Moving past trauma also has nothing to do with forgiveness, which people often think implies that we're supposed to let abusers and manipulators off the hook. Unfair things happened to you. People may have done unfair things to you that they should not have done. That does not mean that you are then trapped in a cycle of emotional pain for the rest of your life. How unfair would that be? Then anyone in the world could tap you once with the Cruelty Wand and crack you right through. Grief is the same. It's the fate of every living creature to suffer the loss of loved ones. Death is built into the system. Grief never really goes away; the love remains; yet anyone who ever loved you would want you to live. Live your life. Walk in sorrow if you have to, but do walk. If you do it right, you can live for two.
When we're stuck in trauma, we're stuck on a story. I'm damaged. I'm broken. I'm ill. It ruined my life. How dare he? Who does she think she is? Why did this have to happen to me? I can't because. We get stuck on repeat, telling the story again and again, wanting two things. We want to know WHY and we want SYMPATHY.
The first thing is that it doesn't matter why. It happened. If it hadn't happened to you, it probably would have happened to someone else, and would you wish that on anyone? The real question is, what now?
The second thing is that sympathy doesn't penetrate. We are virtually incapable of recognizing emotional validation when it's on offer. We like to cry out, "You don't know what it's like!" We can't let it in because it's never enough. But nothing external is ever enough. People will try their best to comfort you and include you, but if your heart is in a jar, it won't matter to you. Transcendence comes from the inside. You have to do the work yourself.
We start by editing the narrative. Something happened to me because I was too inexperienced to understand until it was too late. I didn't know I was in a dangerous situation. I didn't recognize the signs of this condition until the first episode. A small number of bad actors go around looking for naive people to exploit, and one of them got to me. I wasn't the first and I won't be the last. Now I know better. When I share my story, I can help other people to spot the pattern and save themselves. Whether that's a physical injury, a health problem, or an emotional wound, my story can be a useful tool.
I used to be a migraine sufferer, and every single time someone I know gets a migraine, I try to help. I want to share how I quit having migraines nearly three years ago. Same story with fibromyalgia. We can get better! We don't have to live this way! As you can imagine, people tend to find this approach extremely annoying. I can offer true sympathy, and empathy as well, because I've been bedridden by four-day migraines and I've needed help to get out of bed from chronic pain. Compassion is my motivation. The key is right here in my hand, and I'll make you a copy, and you can unlock this prison cell and walk free. Why would you slap it out of my hand? Or I guess I could repeat, "Oh, you poor dear, it's awful, it's awful" for a thousand years and maybe eventually you might feel better.
Emotional pain fits right in to a fixed mindset in the exact same way as physical pain. We believe that we're living statues, set in static positions, and once carved, that's just the way we are. At a certain age, the concrete dries, and if we try to budge, parts of us chip off. My life story absolutely determines my situation. THINGS HAPPENED TO ME! We fail to realize the most important thing, which is that we lived. We got through it. The worst things we could imagine happened, and we're still here. Now what?
How would we be living if it had never happened at all?
I've been physically attacked on the street, yet I still travel the world and walk at night. Why? Why would I do that? The answer is that now I have a cell phone with a video camera. I'm not going to let some random jerk from fifteen years ago force me to live in a cage. Also, actual people have been literally forced to live in a physical cage. What happened to me was terribly frightening, but I got away, and in my mind these incidents are nowhere near the worst that could happen. Whenever I think about unfairness, I try to focus on Things That are Unfair and put the incident in perspective. Do I really care about injustice, or only when I feel that someone has been unjust to me? I've never been murdered or kidnapped and I've never been a victim of human trafficking. If I care about injustice and unfairness, then logically I should focus my efforts on the things I think are the most unjust and the least fair. I can use my pain and fear as fuel and work to fight the forces of evil. Superhero style.
Trauma makes us feel weak even as it makes us stronger. We think we can't handle it, even as we are living proof that we could and we did. We think we can't move on, even though we're moving on every hour, every minute. It gets easier when we reinterpret what happened as a random incident that could have happened to anyone, something that has happened to others. It gets easier when we search out and find other survivors and find out who is coping the best. Think of a trauma, whether physical or emotional, and there will be a role model out there kicking its butt. Think of someone close to you, someone you love or admire, and ask yourself whether you would want this kind of thing to derail their life the way yours has been. What would I want for my best friend or my favorite teacher in this situation?
We never know until we ask, but we're surrounded by the walking wounded. It's rare that we're actually the most traumatized person in the room. It's rare that our measure of suffering is objectively the worst. The pain is real, and we're certainly entitled to it. When, though, do we decide to lay that burden down? There is never going to be any true compensation. The clock will never be turned back. We'll carry the memory forever. None of that means, though, that the story is over. We have the power to rewrite the story so that whatever happened was merely one chapter, one chapter at the very beginning.
If there's ever to be any compensation at all, it is the reward of a new day.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.